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The applications of interactive video at British Petroleum and British Telecom

David J. Condon
Director of Computer Education
The University of Newcastle, NSW

British Petroleum

Part of my staff redevelopment leave, undertaken in 1987, involved working for British Petroleum International Plc at Britannic House, Moor Lane, City of London. There I was placed in the Office Distributed Systems section of the Department of Information Systems Services, reporting directly to the local manager of that section.

My formal work assignment was to prepare a Users' Manual to accompany the BP Photocom system, as it was then known, a Data Base Storage and Retrieval system of full colour photographs stored on silver platter optical storage disks running under the control of an IBM AT microcomputer and the British Telecom Image Capturing software package.

This database was being developed for the BP Public Relations Department which has a colour photographic file of some 50,000 scenes of BP sites and installations around the world. These are used, as required, for illustrations of brochures, magazines, seminar presentations and the like. It had become exceedingly inefficient to search manually for the required illustration and a plan had been drawn up to transfer them to an electronic medium and make use of the available technology. It was also planned to explore the possibility of marketing the system for other visual data base uses, such as criminal identification, or for personnel in a security establishment.

To enable this storage a colour video camera was used to capture the illustration and convert it to a digital coding medium. This was accomplished by a hardware/software equipment developed by British Telecom at a cost of some 3 million pounds. BP had customised this in two ways - firstly by storing descriptive text made up of keywords to describe the salient features and details of the colour illustrations, and then storing text and the code number of the illustration on a high speed hard disk running on an IBM AT microcomputer, finally storing the digitised illustrations on a 12 inch video disk using laser beam write/read technology. This enabled quick, computer based searching of the database, using a retrieval package written in dBase III by external consultants to BP. Searches for such keywords as "rig", "BP", "fire", "night", "Alaska", "North Sea" were enabled and give some idea of the uses for the system.

Construction of the handbook required my undertaking an extensive grounding in the operation of the hardware and software. This was compounded by the continual changes made to specifications. It needed to be written in a very elementary style, to be used by clerical staff from the Public Relations area who had scant knowledge or experience of such technology. These staff were required to key in the text and capture the illustrations and store them in the digitised medium, a task then estimated to take one staff-year to accomplish. They were also required to be able to operate the retrieval of illustrations described by the entered keywords as supplied by customer users of the scheme.

The Handbook was finally completed after three months of multiple re-writes. These rewrites were necessitated by the changes in standards of operating procedures during the on-going trials of the system. The final production of the complete system was still impending when the time came for my return to Australia.

I have kept in touch with subsequent developments by maintaining contacts with the BP staff involved with the process. Initially my manager, Tony Smith, who has subsequently retired, then with his manager, Vinod Mehta, until he was subsequently restationed following the disbandment of the Office Distributed Systems section due to financial cutbacks. This left the BP Photocom system very much up in the air and it was not resurrected until recently by a previous member of the section, Dick Ellison, who was by this time stationed at Sunbury. At this stage the system underwent some major refurbishing.

Current status

Under Sunbury control, a whole re-think was done. The first decision was to abandon the IBM based system and transfer to Apple Macintosh II. This was done due to the ease of networking to the image capturing hardware, and the availability of suitable Hypercard software stacks to control the process. The hardware requirements necessitated the installation of an image compression-decompression card, a 24 bit colour card and 4 Mbyte of main memory. The images were handled using the Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG) standards with the special Hypercard stack being developed by England-Green Plc, a UK subsidiary of an European Consortium. This new version of the image capturing-retrieval system was now renamed BP Preview.

Using this new system, the Manager of the Public Relations Division, Colin Underhill, organised the task of loading the 50,000 illustrations with their associated keyword text, his staff completing it in considerably less time than would have been possible under the original system. The new system was then tested locally and, having proved satisfactory, a remote station was set up at Harlow and an online link was established from Sunbury. After successful trials over this distance, it was then ready for testing over the international BP data communications line. The first international testing is to be a remote query-retrieval station at Singapore, Colin Underhill to be on hand in Singapore to officially launch the system. The next stage is to be a link to BP Australia at Melbourne, and then a link to New Zealand. It is anticipated that, ultimately, there will be 20 online query-retrieval sites world-wide.

Concluding remarks

When this discussion was being prepared, it was my intent to survey the developments of the original British Telecom image capturing system since it was utilised by BP. Much to my surprise, the whole section handling this had been closed down, due to continuing losses in attempting to market it. However the staff were re-assigned to a more productive use of video storage using interactive videos and CD-ROMs for training British Telecom staff both in house locally and at remote sites using, distance learning. As this is a natural extension of the static pictorial data base I propose to examine the philosophy and organisational operation of this particular staff training system.

Distance learning in British Telecom


In general terms, Distance Learning refers to training material which is designed to facilitate and encourage individualised learning and which does not normally require a trainer at the point of delivery. It allows for self paced, user centred learning which can be flexibly delivered close to the work place. Its main benefit is that it provides an efficient means of delivering consistent, effective training to a large geographically spread audience in a relatively short time.


British Telecom has a long history of using paper based Distance Learning in, for example, operator training. This type of Distance Learning is still used for a variety of applications including technical and sales training.

In the late 1970s several Computer Based Learning systems were assessed by British Telecom for their suitability for use in technical training. The WICAT system was selected and by the 1980s two learning centres were established in the technical training centre in Stone in Staffordshire. This centrally delivered system allowed computer based training to be integrated with training on large scale equipment available only at the training centre. The computer based teaching courseware was developed by British Telecom staff using the WISE authoring system. In the mid 1980s local WICAT delivery systems were installed to allow technical training to be delivered closer to the workplace where the use of major equipment is not required.

1984 saw the early work with Interactive Video. The added features of sound and moving pictures opened up the possibility of applying this type of Distance Learning to Management training within British Telecom. 5 Interactive Video disks designed to train managers were produced in 1984 to assess the effectiveness of Distance Learning in this area. The results were positive and in 1985 a manager of Management Distance Learning was appointed, a team was gradually developed to exploit the use of Distance Learning in management and commercial training. Although the design of these materials was developed by British Telecom staff, the production of the video material and the software was invariably contracted from outside. Ultimately, in 1990, a manager was appointed to coordinate all the Distance Learning activities across the Training Department.


British Telecom has become committed to the use of Distance Learning as a strategic weapon in the training and development of its workforce. When integrated with other forms of training it has been demonstrated to be an effective and efficient means of training a large number of people in a wide geographical area whilst preserving the consistency of the message.

British Telecom has applied Distance Learning, particularly Interactive Video, to areas once thought unsuitable for this method of training delivery, for example, interpersonal skills. It has also addressed issues such as attitudinise change and securing commitment to new procedures.

The Distance Learning packages have been integrated with other forms of training provision and care has been taken to position them within the individual training plans. The aim has been to establish Distance Learning as "Business as Usual" method of training for both trainers and trainees.

Distance Learning has been found particularly effective when applied to the core skill elements of areas such as interpersonal communications and data communications. These Distance Learning packages have then become prerequisites for a number of courses which would otherwise have overlapping elements. It has also been shown to be very effective in rolling out training throughout the company; it has provided consistent, high quality training to all. A form of Distance Learning has been used to support line managers when they constitute the mechanism through which training is extended.

There are a large number of Distance Learning packages produced outside British Telecom and their policy is to use such materials whenever possible. However, to date there has been no major use of any externally produced package. One reason for this is that British Telecom expect Distance Learning products to be fully integrated into the training provision and this has been difficult with packages not designed specifically for training in British Telecom. To make full use of this resource the materials need to be tailored for integration by producing supplementary material which positions them in British Telecom standards. They have now employed a specialist to work in this area to benefit from the huge investment made in Distance Learning in the United Kingdom generally.

Materials production

There is a team of core Distance Learning specialists who work with other trainers and sponsors to design and develop Distance Learning materials. Subject expertise has been brought in as required. These specialists are experienced in product management, selecting and exploiting different Distance Learning media, applying Distance Learning to a variety of training problems, learning design and effective Distance Learning techniques. Some are also experienced in Distance Learning production activities such as video editing, desk top publishing, computer programming. However about 40% of the production at British Telecom is contracted to external companies.


There is a network of local Distance Learning support based in operational units throughout the company. There are approximately 80 centres which vary in size from one delivery machine to over 20. There is a total of 288 workstations equipped to deliver Interactive Video and a further 244 which can deliver Computer Based Training; in addition there is a large number of desk top personal computers which can deliver some forms of computer based training. These workstations do require some administration support, but have been designed to require no specialist computing expertise.


A three day centrally delivered Appraisal and Counselling course was replaced in January 1988 by an Interactive Video, taking on average half a day to complete, followed by a one day locally delivered workshop. Prior to the introduction of this new course there had been waiting lists up to two years long for this training.

In the first 18 months of the roll out of this locally delivered course it was estimated that 6,000 managers completed the training. This is the equivalent of running eight centrally delivered events every week over the same period. A cost comparison of the two methods of training showed a saving of some 1.4 million pounds even when the full development costs of the new course (£300,000) and the delivery equipment costs (£126,000) had been taken into account. These would be of course "one off" costs. The course is expected to be used at least two more years with an estimated saving of 300 per student.

The Open University has conducted a study into the acceptability and effectiveness of the course and has found:


While the training developed in British Telecom is focused on the needs of British Telecom's employees and direct customers, and the Distance Learning material developed specifically for use in British Telecom; it has become apparent, however, that there is a considerable market for these materials outside British Telecom. They now have an agreement with Longman Training to market these materials both in the United Kingdom and abroad. This agreement was established in October 1990.

One reason why the materials are suitable for a wide market is that they do not use British Telecom as the context for the training. It has been found to be more effective when using context outside the normal working place, for example, settings in a journalist's office, or Columbus seeking funds for his voyage from Spain. The learner will not then spend time criticising the context with "We never do it that way!" or "We don't make them in that colour any more!" and can concentrate on the learning. The lessons we can learn from the British Telecom experience are:

  1. It takes much longer than you think to implement DL and integrate it into the total training provision.

  2. The people who are the most difficult to persuade are the ones that need to 'own' DL, support and nurture it - the trainers!

  3. The success of DL depends on how well it is implemented; the support and environment at the point of delivery are critical.

  4. The systems should be designed to require no previous knowledge of computers from the users. Instructions should be kept to a minimum; it should be 'obvious' what to do.

  5. People prefer DL if it is well designed and well supported.

  6. It is essential to the quality of the products to develop design skills in house; decisions on whether to bring production skills in house can be made on a straight comparative cost basis.

  7. DL is a very cost effective training method.

  8. DL can combine fast, high volume training with consistency.
I will conclude with a brief description of the material currently under development by BT Training at Stone, Staffordshire.

Business Management program distance learning material

The basic elements of the package under development are:
  1. A Planning for Growth Interactive Video
    A Planning for Decline Interactive Video

  2. A CD-ROM Tools Disk allowing students to study particular elements in more detail, containing the following Modules:

  3. A Second CD ROM Tools Disk containing:

These materials are being developed according to the standards of the UK Council of National Academic Awards (CNAA). For completeness we conclude with some extracts from the design specifications which give an overview of the program.

Business Management Planning (example)

1. Objectives and form of the document

The objectives are to:

2. Program Overview

An Outline Treatment gives an overview of the interactive video. The Interactive Video is to be administered in various different ways depending on the audience and the course in which it is used. For example the student may first become acquainted with the Interactive Video in the standard Business Management Planning course in an allocated one hour session. In the extended Business Management Planning course or at a local Distance Learning Centre they may continue to work with the course to broaden their basic knowledge and to continue identifying business management skills.

At the most superficial level, the Interactive Video provides the student with a video case study of business management planning in action within a large publishing organisation analogous to British Telecom, along with the opportunity to gather information and use it to complete case related exercises.

At the deepest level, the Interactive Video provides the student with a video treatment of the case study, backup computer generated information, specific Computer Based Training plus a link into a resource of Computer Based Training covering the theory of and giving practice with standard business planning models.

The design means that trainers can guide students to the depth of training information appropriate to the course objectives and time available while students can learn and explore at their own pace.

3. Program structure

This course is divided into four types of information - video, case related tutorial, case related exercises, and general Business Management Planning models. We give an outline of a typical distribution of each of these types of material below. Pieces of video material are interspersed with computer graphic based tutorial and the opportunity to complete case related exercises and visit the CD-ROM generalised models as shown.

In addition, the student can stop the video and interrogate an object or person to acquire information at almost any time.

There is a progressive structure intrinsic to the subject matter as represented by the flow of the Business Management Planning model. This means that the student will be presented with the three stages - analysis, choice and implementation - in order; and that order within each section will be maintained where possible.

The following table shows the natural chronology of the different types of material:

Video material Case related tutorial Case related exercise CD-ROM module

SWOT Analysis SWOT Analysis SWOT Analysis
Competitor Analysis
Portfolio Analysis
Generic Strategies Generic Strategies
Generic Strategies
Culture & Evolution Stage of Growth
Cultural Web
Management Style
Stage of Growth
Cultural Web
Management Style
Stage of Growth & Culture
Management Styles & Change
Innovate Alternatives
Evaluate Options
Risk and Feasibility Analysis Risk Analysis
Financial Feasibility
Feasibility (Acceptability & Suitability)
Risk Analysis
Financial Feasibility
Feasibility (Acceptability & Suitability & Financial)
Risk Analysis
Feasibility (Acceptability & Suitability)
Selection of Optimum Strategy

Choice of Growth or Decline
Overarching Goal
(Blockages & Enablers)
Management of Change
Monetary Resourcing
Manpower Planning
Physical & Technical
System Design
Creating New Norms
Skills Critical Success Factors Critical Success Factors Critical Success Factors

Business Management Planning

Decline Case Discussion Document (Example) - Summary

The Decline Business Management Planning Interactive Video is one of two case study Videos which, combined with a CD-ROM?XA data/audio resource make up the BMP Distance Learning tools focused on strategy and planning.

These courses are used by BT managers participating in the BT course leading to MB or similar qualifications. The Interactive Video takes one hour and is divided into approximately:

35 minutes drama
25 minutes gathering information-understanding theory
The Interactive Video makes use of the CD-ROM resource for CBT exercises dealing with the key exercises common to both Growth and Decline case studies. The time taken by the student in using the CD-ROM resources is not included within the hour's course.

The student will gain an understanding of the BMP model in theory and how it can be used in practice in a similar culture to that which exists in BT. The student will also be able to practice using the analytical tools available for Business Management Planning with a case study.

The drama follows the action of a management team in a division of a large company making electromechanical components in an industry moving towards electronic components. The company has a new chairman looking to rationalise his product portfolio and make his mark. The student will be able to interrogate objects and people during the action in order to build a comprehensive picture of the company and the division and to plug any holes in their grasp of the theory. At key points during the story which is following the BMP model, the student is invited to complete some of the analysis that the management team are doing in parallel. Comparison and assessment can be made to ideal answers. The types of information that the student will see are:

Production of the drama attempts to follow the values dictated by the structure and feel of the company. This means it will have a different feel from the Growth Case. The company chairman will take a particular interest in the declining division, and will act as a mentor to the management team and to the student. The chairman will use a computer model that will also act as the students' window onto the CD-ROM and case related interactions.


This paper has been prepared with the assistance of Vinod Mehta, Dick Ellison, Mary Shaw & Colin Underhill of British Petroleum UK, and Margaret Bell, Lynn Mynard & Keith Johnson of British Telecom (BT Training).

Please cite as: Condon, D. J. (1992). The applications of interactive video at British Petroleum and British Telecom. In Promaco Conventions (Ed.), Proceedings of the International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 321-329. Perth, Western Australia, 27-31 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1992/condon.html

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